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Family tie helps win FDA contract

Federal work goes to the client of an official's husband. The couple say they acted properly.

December 19, 2006|David Willman and Walter F. Roche Jr. | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The concerns at the office surfaced not long after their Las Vegas wedding.

Margaret "Margo" Burnette wasn't pleased with the contractor handling an important data project at the Food and Drug Administration, where she held a senior position. For advice, she turned in summer 2004 to her new husband, Mark A. Boster.

Both had spent most of their careers dealing with government contracts. And Boster, she recalled, had been "ranting about this fabulous company."

"I did ask Mark, 'What was the name of that company?' And I gave the name to my deputy."

The sequence of events worked out well for Platinum Solutions Inc., of Reston, Va., for whom Boster was a paid advisor.

The FDA dismissed the first contractor and awarded the job to Platinum Solutions. By this fall, the small technology company had collected about $4 million from the project. Last month it won a new, related FDA contract, possibly worth millions more.

But the events also placed Burnette at risk of crossing a legal line.

Federal law prohibits officials from acting on matters in which they or their spouse has a financial interest. Yet Burnette continued to oversee the project for months after the FDA hired Platinum Solutions, interviews and government records show. In April 2005, the company made her husband its chief operating officer and executive vice president.

The FDA's handling of the matter illustrates how a small but well-positioned contractor gained a foothold -- and how conflict-of-interest restraints are only as strict as the officials who enforce them.

Some FDA staff members raised concerns internally about a conflict of interest nearly two years ago and an ethics inquiry was opened, according to those familiar with the matter. Burnette and Boster said the inquiry was closed last month with no finding of wrongdoing.

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'No regrets, no qualms'

Burnette, 48, said in an interview that she cleared details of her involvement with her boss and other agency officials. She was aware at the time, she said, that "there could be the concern of the appearance of a conflict of interest." But several FDA officials who supervised or worked alongside Burnette said that they did not know important aspects of her role until contacted for this article.

For instance, her boss through most of 2004 and 2005, James J. Rinaldi, said that he had believed, mistakenly, that Boster advised Platinum Solutions without pay. And he did not know, Rinaldi said, that Burnette had suggested Platinum Solutions to her deputy. Moreover, one of the first officials who raised concerns internally about Burnette's role, Linda D. Burek, said investigators never questioned her.

Asked for comment, FDA spokesman Douglas Arbesfeld cited agency policy in declining to discuss "personnel matters." Burnette was promoted early this year to a newly created post in the office of the FDA commissioner.

Burnette and Boster said they acted properly.

"I have no regrets, no qualms," Boster, 58, said.

Burnette said she saw nothing wrong with suggesting Platinum Solutions for the FDA work.

"The fact that my husband was on their board of advisors was irrelevant," said Burnette, adding that her specialty is "turning around troubled projects."

Burnette had arrived at the FDA in August 2003, when officials were trying to improve the tracking of the hundreds of new medical products that industry wants to market each year.

A new data system was intended to speed handling of the industry applications. Burnette, who had contracting experience with the Department of Agriculture and the state of Maryland, quickly began leading the project.

Burnette backed her colleagues' preference to hire a Maryland company, ProObject Inc.

On April 1, 2004, Burnette and Boster married. That same month Burnette was promoted to information-technology director. A top FDA official praised her as a "very successful leader."

Boster, who was working full-time with another technology contractor, joined Platinum Solutions' advisory board about then. He was paid a retainer and fees for attending meetings, he said.

Boster and his colleagues quickly recommended that Platinum Solutions petition the U.S. Small Business Administration to be recognized as a disadvantaged, woman-owned business. The firm won that special status in mid-2004, making it eligible to win federal contracts without competition.

Burnette said that she then wrote the first of several letters to FDA ethics officials, pledging to abstain from "procurement" related to the data project. (She said that she wrote the letter because Boster's full-time employer -- at that point not Platinum Solutions -- might bid for the project.)

Burnette and Boster already were familiar with the scrutiny that can surround government contracting.

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